Monday, December 17, 2007

Literary retrospective 2007

Yes, the first of its kind in these parts, and more a conscious attempt to inspire me to read more in the coming years. Let the fear of having a blank retrospective keep me up at night, giving plenty of time for going through my latest whimsical read!

Now, unlike the musical retrospective, which distinguishes itself with its clearly mature and philosophical views of albums, songs, and what have you, this is decidedly the work of a neophyte. So do forgive any clumsiness in the writing, not to mention the sparsity of what I have to work with. While I didn't read a whole lot this year, there were a couple of good periods when I had lots of spare time that I filled with my old pastime.

The short yet dense Notes From Underground really captivated me at the start of the year, but I hope I didn't completely misunderstand it, because I found some parts of it unbelievably funny. I recall the description of the UM pacing up and down for hours on end to be particularly amusing. But on the other extreme, the way he expresses a choice towards the end (no spoilers!) was one of the saddest things I read all year. I read it twice just to check whether the fool hadn't done it, hadn't thrown away all he had, no avail.

One of my occasional "random" reads, with no compelling backstory behind them, was Londonstani. Well, alright, that isn't entirely accurate, because my interest was piqued by a list that ranked it one of the best novels by an Indian author, but that doesn't seem particularly interesting. Anyhow, after reading it I wrote about how I felt somewhat unsatisfied; yes, the twist at the end is very well done, and yes, it does turn a lot of things on their heads. But I didn't like having to grapple with all the loose threads by myself, and I certainly didn't think that the twist made all of them irrelevant. Maybe I didn't appreciate the implications fully enough - unlike S, I really didn't feel like it questioned a personal prejudice or way I see the world, but perhaps that's because my prejudices are so entrenched as to seem normal, eh? ;) The writing itself is realistic and "authentic" enough, but you're probably going to have to embrace the volte-face with open arms to really love the book.

I came across Farrukh Dhondy entirely by chance - for whatever reason, he became the reigning expert on the racial row that ensued in the Big Brother house. He rose to the occasion, starting with the immortal (paraphrased) lines: "As I read about this, I felt like Napolean, watching the ruins of Elba". Anyone capable of beginning an interview with a line like that is clearly special, and so I became obsessed with him for a fair bit. It was cemented when, again by pure luck he contributed an opinion piece in the newspaper. Once again, he started off strong by providing an answer to Yeats' famous question in "The Tower", that asks where the imagination dwells. At this point, I simply had to read something of this man, and so found some of his writing with a bit of effort.

I like Poona Company better, though I usually seem to love well-crafted short stories (do they remind me of aspirations I once held?). The rich childhood stories cannot help but remind me of my own, even though mine are relatively tame. My favourite in the collection is the final one, "Rose de Bahama", which manages to be profoundly sad yet inspiring - depending on my mood, one trumps the other, but I'd like to think the inspiring is the overall winner. Indeed, let the Bahama ride again. I only realized that this means there is an obvious connection between my idiosyncratic favourites for song and story of the year. This be the year of empathy, 'twould seem.

Ah, and there was that existential explorer, Patrick White, who was introduced by way of a discussion of The Solid Mandala, which sounded like just the ticket for a pseudo-intellectual like me - dense, impenetrable, and about the natures of man and art. Wary of starting off with a cold shower, I instead went after Voss, the tale of the German explorer who tries to make it across the desert in a great existential quest, where the desert in all its sparse majesty is to reveal the truth about the human condition and Voss' place in the world. It is a very dense novel, but not entirely impenetrable. The power of the writing is inescapable, as it the harshness and horror of the descent into isolation. Or is that the descent into the human heart? It grapples with too many ideas for me to have grasped them all, or even notice them all, but the staggering force of it all was something else. Like I mentioned in my "review", the three stages of the book neatly reflected the stages of my journey in reading it, with the section in the desert being as unforgiving to read as the travel that is detailed. Clearly the most challenging read of the year, but consequently one of the most special ones.

There was more still, but nothing that particularly springs to mind as being strongly memorable or important. I'm aware that I have work to do yet when it comes to reading, because I probably heard more albums than read books - and given how little I listen to these days, that isn't a good sign. Perhaps the coming year needs more of a break from the classical canon, which is beautiful, touching, inspiring and everything, but inescapably consuming and occasionally dense. I'd hate to end up only knowing about the many books that capture my attention, but which I never seem to get the time to read.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Musical retrospective 2007

Lord knows that another slow musical year hardly deserves an entire post dedicated to it, but now that it's so deeply entrenched in the rich, historical tradition of this blog o' mine, it seems unfair not to indulge once again. So here I go.

Yes, as hinted in the prologue above, I think there has been an exponential decrease in the volume of music in my life, but as I argued a few times with S, this doesn't mean that it matters less to me. It's a truism that what really counts is how much you engage with whatever you do or experience, and so I don't think things are all that more different in the only sense that really counts. Maybe I seem to talk about the same artist or album a lot, but I enjoy this deep study of a few specific things. Early on, I was too entranced by the thought of having an "opinion" on anything and everything that critics and listeners deemed "important", or just "worthy of one's opinion". Nowadays, I have (consciously?) shifted away from that. There really isn't an obsession any more to know about, say, all the Can records (nothing against Can, they're just an example of someone a fair ways outside my sphere), or the true progenitors of each and every genre, or what album best captures the end of the '70s, and so on. The sort of encyclopaedic knowledge that many listeners possess is beyond me, should I want to keep my methods of detailed analysis; and at the moment anyway, this is the way I'd like to go for a while longer.

Indeed, I think I've become somewhat elitist, but it's not in the usually understood sense - yes, much to my shame, I do sometimes clutch onto certain records and think that my knowledge of them puts to shame the idols that others erect, but this happens less nowadays (through training!). The elitism I deal in is mostly about me not caring - not caring about things like I mentioned previously, as opposed to the many I see who wear their knowledge with pride, but express their knowledge in such an unconvincing way that I suspect their treatment of the music is mostly peripheral. By which I mean it really does sound like it has just been on in the background, and whatever half-baked impression it creates is put down as a definitive opinion. I tend to imagine then that these listens are simply so that an opinion can be formed and put forth proudly, to increase one's cred or whatever. I sometimes like to imagine that my level of distancing somehow puts me "above" such listeners, but I recognize this as a failing - I think elitism is almost always the wrong way to go. In this regard, I need to interact with people I perceive to have fallen prey to this "affliction", because I sense that at least some of them possess a far greater appreciation than my flippant judgement allows. Really, it's the same old issue of my inability to take music in large quantities, making me overly defensive and desperate to seek out flaws in the patterns and habits of the majority.

Ideally, I suppose I'd like to be able to keep the deep study but also stamp out the remains of my "preservation" principles (which earlier posts will tell you refer to a ridiculous policy of saving albums for "just right" occasions, that invariably never turn up). I'm looser about them nowadays, but I still find myself not listening to certain albums for no rationally defendable reasons - what I tell myself is essentially along the lines of "Wait till it comes to you", but it sometimes never does. Of course, changes in my environment this year mean that finding time for such leisures as listening to albums may become scarce, but I hope that whatever time I do find is put to proper use. Not quite a resolution, but it's something I'd like to put into practice, so that if nothing else, next year's retrospective is more interesting ;)

Onto the records then? Let's see, memory (and the archives) tell me that last year was Simon's, due to the sheer number of his albums I listened to, and the one before it the Roxy's, which was the result of just one album. This year? No clear "winner" as such, but if we go by my favourite album this year, I guess it'd have to be Morrissey. Which is surprising, because I long thought that his solo career was a step down from the days of the Smiths, but that was based on hearsay, and no actual listening of my own. You can't compare the two, of course, but Viva Hate is the Queen Is Dead of his solo career, in my opinion; by which I mean that it's an album where everything seems to turn out just right, and it just so happens to be his first solo album. This was one of those albums that just presented itself to me in the most unlikely of places, and I got it expecting some competent experiments by Morrissey to try and see what he could do without the Smiths. Instead...! I might be the only one who thinks it's as potent as his Smiths lyrics, but that's in no small part due to the fact that I love the underappreciated songs, treated as frivolous distractions by most reviewers. I hesitate to dwell on them too much, for fear of sounding as though I have completely lost it - after all, these are songs that people either cite as being exactly the kind of nonsense that makes Morrissey's solo career nothing compared to the Smiths', or simply don't bother to mention. But..."Little Man, What Now?", as I noted in my RYM musing, I firmly believe captures a more fundamental and deeper sense of sadness, empathy, and failure than simply the tale of a once famous TV star. I once thought it was an example of excellent sequencing, following the wonderful opening track ("Alsatian Cousin"), until I found myself listening to it more than the other tracks! And "Break Up The Family", which walks by without troubling many people, is another song I find moving for rather personal reasons. For whatever reason, I really respond well to the "growing up" that the song seems to suggest (yes, of course there are parallels with my own journey, which obviously creates special bonds). Objectively speaking, I could probably do without some songs towards the end, but they don't really matter during the listen. By the time the end comes, I feel so satisfied that they happily pass by without a hitch.

Viva Hate's cousin also got a lot of listens - Bona Drag is like Hatful Of Hollow (I can't stop the Smiths comparisons, it seems) to me, in that the reason I like it so much is basically due to a few of the songs being flat out great. As singles compilations go, of course one can argue about some of the other ones being relatively weak, but I'm far more lenient on these sorts of albums in this regard. The wit and humour! Beautiful. One disappointment was Vauxhall and I, however, which I was expecting to be his masterpiece, but which turned out merely good. Actually, it may well be a personal masterpiece, and I can easily imagine him thinking it to be his best album, just looking at how it expressed his state of mind at the time. I normally join the artist in such cases and appreciate it from "their" point of view, but not this time I'm sorry to admit. Yes, there are three excellent songs that make the album well worth any fan's time, but I cannot see it as his finest hour the way most fans do. For me, it's Viva Hate (assuming of course the people aren't lying to me about Kill Uncle, say).

More exploring of old favourites was done with me pal McCartney. For once, I can claim to be relevant in that I did hear Memory Almost Full, released this year. And it's pretty good. I remember thinking that most of the panning reviews were probably the result of very cursory listens, because none of them seemed to pay any attention to the very respectable tracks I found only over a long stretch. The day after release saw RYM filled with reviews dismissing it as mediocre, which I found quite unfair. Agreed, no-one's going to cite this as the Ram of this century, but I don't regret making time for this at all. And yes, I should get around to Chaos And Creation sometime...

Red Rose Speedway, which I packed away with bitter disappointment last year, made a huge turnaround. I now consider it, in a word, grooovy! It's actually interesting in its construction, for I find that the album gradually gets better and better as it moves along, until one reaches "Little Lamb Dragonfly", which is unjustly unknown, for it is one of the best ballads McCartney wrote. After that, the material stays at a basically equal level, until the ending medley which is silly, simple, yet oh so melodic and interesting. I don't mind the potpourri nature of it all, because the sections are just delightful. Particularly "Lazy Dynamite", which comes off as one of those melodies you feel you've always known (McCartney does that a lot with me), and also the unabashedly sweet "Power Cut". You don't have to tell me that the pieces couldn't have survived by themselves, but it doesn't really matter. The stitched together suite seems rather at home among the rest of the tracks, and I don't doubt that this positive end note has no small part to play in making me consider Rose a fine, fine album. Sure, as an Amazon reviewer pointed out, there must've been a lotta drugs going into the album, and sure, it can sometimes be messy, but neither of those things come across in a negative light for me.

As I was preparing for this retrospective earlier, I was thinking that Tug Of War might be Viva Hate's prime competitor, but somehow as time has passed, the album has fallen ever so slightly from my heart. But it's still in a fine place, because I think it's the most consistent McCartney got since Ram (yes, in saying so I conveniently ignore the ones I haven't heard, writing them off as possible gems for die-hards that can't possibly be revelatory - such is my arrogance). The other thing that really strikes me is how well-crafted and complex the songs are - there isn't anything that I'd call straightforward pop, as everything has just that little extra twist that you only realize after many listens. I still think of the album very highly because it is just so consistent. But (you knew it was coming!), the one complaint I can make is that there isn't anything, well, truly special. A "Little Lamb Dragonfly", if you will, is missing, even if all the tracks are as good or better than your average McCartney song. "The Pound Is Sinking" is my favourite, as a McCartney mini-suite typically is, and the third verse is the most powerful moment on the album; but I suppose even this beautiful number can't provide the required elevation. And so, Tug sits in the second level, behind Ram, but perhaps unfairly, alongside something like Red Rose, which is so sprawling and loose that it feels just wrong to put it alongside so tight and meticulous an album. Yet how can I deny the emotional resonance of Rose!?!

Given the volume of his work I listened to last year, it isn't surprising that I eased up on Paul Simon this year. But I still had the energy to hear There Goes Rhymin' Simon, whose association with me goes back many a year, and whose first listen was such a letdown that I don't think I brought myself to mentioning it in last year's retrospective. But time dealt with this injustice, as I got around to retrying the album, and finding myself liking it more with each subsequent listen. What I once took to be missteps from the brilliant constructions on Paul Simon slowly revealed themselves in their own way. Yes, there is some filler that I cannot deny, but one cannot deny something like "Tenderness", which displays all the characteristics that I loved off the debut. Nor something like "Was A Sunny Day", which seemed to be nothing more than a simple reggae shuffle the first few times I heard it, but somehow started to shine through the rest of the material later on. Probably one of the earliest examples of his writing being obtuse - of course I don't know why she calls him Mr. Earl! A commentator on GS' site remarks how it seems to take a meaning of its own, which is something I am fond of quoting, even if I don't know how far one can take the argument.

Ah yes, I also filled in some gaps in my Cave collection. Henry's Dream seems a fitting enough successor to The Good Son, though it's really nothing like it at all. The imagery is at its most vivid, but the music is back to Tender Prey days, and interestingly enough I don't find myself listening to either record all that much. Which is not to say I dislike either; I pretty much agree with the view of Prey being a career highlight. It did take time to appreciate the more aggressive style of Dream, but I think it was worth it, just to understand Cave a bit better. But there's no escaping your inlication, and I'm not entirely sheepish to admit that I usually return to the softer ballads ("Straight To You" and "Loom Of The Land"), even though "I Had A Dream, Joe" has also left quite an impact on me.

Strictly speaking, I haven't given Let Love In enough of a chance yet, but as of now I think it to be a fair to good album, all things considered. Lord knows there are enough good songs on here to justify its place in Cave's catalogue, but right now, something just seems missing. It might be that I've been reading too many reviews, because I'm not sure whether the lyrics are great or if there is a lot of the same old material being repeated. I hope time and wisdom will help me decide this matter. And I hope time will afford a listen to Your Funeral...My Trial, which I've only heard the one time, and so really don't have much to say about. But (I can't resist)! "The Carny"! A very impressive first listen it was.

You know, usually albums that get their first listen in late October/November end up basically stranded in no man's land, getting passing mentions in respective retrospectives. Cave's fine double album, Abattoir Blues/Lyre Of Orpheus deserves not such a fate, and even though I don't think I've listened to it enough, I know enough about it to affirm those who praised the first disc. The second? Moments of greatness, but a lot of it is currently wringing on my patience a little bit. "O Children" just about makes up for it though. One of the best for sure, "Hiding All Away", is just a joy to listen to, even though I initially found it terribly boring and meaningless. We'll get to the ending later, but I should first mention that even without it, I'd still love the song. The intonations can't help but remind me of Dylan, as do the images; hilarious, as Nick rarely is (I like how he emphasises that he really isn't in the oven, for instance). As for the ending! I obviously didn't see it coming, and it's interesting how it seems to put what came before it in a completely new light. The next listen gives the seeming nonsense more of a message (or perhaps that's part of the charade?). Thank the lord he can still write songs like this!


Favourite album: Viva Hate I think, but I won't reflect on this for too long.

Favourite songs (standard):
1. Afterglow (Small Faces)
2. Tenderness (Simon)
3. Little Lamb Dragonfly (McCartney)

Favourite songs (idiosyncratic):
1. Little Man, What Now? (Morrissey)
2. Lazy Dynamite (McCartney)
3. Ouija Board, Ouija Board (Morrissey)

Best discovery: Though I didn't talk too much about them above, I'll say The Small Faces. Like the Roxys before them, they came out of nowhere and floored me.

Best rediscovery: Red Rose Speedway, as noted above.

Best opener: Hmm..."Alsatian Cousin"? Not a particularly strong year for my album openers, because as much as I like the song, it isn't a master-stroke.

Best first listen: I'd probably go for Tug Of War, even if it didn't end the year as high as Viva Hate. Even now I can't escape the amazing melodies. And I try!

As always, I love the predictions for next year! Once again, I failed to do most anything on last year's predictions (although I did get some Cave albums). Perhaps next year will feature...more Randy Newman and John Prine? That's all I got, I'm afraid - things aren't looking up for the year ahead!
All these years on, and some things just don't change. I once again provided entertainment to the poor comrade who happened to run into me after it was done, as I was imagining aloud the various hoops I've have to jump through in order to make up for that joke of a performance. He took it all very well, and he had enough foresight in him to claim that my mutterings of B+'s were tantamount to, how should I put it, s/+/S/g. Unlike that great southern land, the land of the free took very little time to prove him right. The discrepancy between expectation and result wasn't as bad as one particular incident the astute reader will recall, but it was bad enough for me to realize that I still have a loong way to go. At least I can provide more entertainment as I stumble through.

Friday, December 07, 2007

On occasion, I imagine that I somehow receive an insight into another's character and taste, and imagine these to be true with a conviction that, on reflection, is somewhat surprising. It took a split-second for me to decide that yes, R would not disappoint, he of course knew the origins of the song that played on the radio, and we could spend the rest of the journey comparing our opinions of the band's development. Such was my confidence that I had already begun smiling, expecting my glee to be unbounded when he confirmed my instinct. So, sure of the answer, I chanced my hand and asked him what he thought of the track. Indifference, he said, after a half-bewildered pause that conveyed as much. Equally quickly, my fanciful dream was robbed, and I was forced to smile weakly and blather about some tangential topic, trying hard to mask the very real disappointment I felt. Another loss, yes, but it isn't all that bad, really. If I ever achieve a straight hit, the rewards will surely be worth any embarassments incurred along the way.